From the cover of "Useful Junk" by Erika Meitner
From the cover of "Useful Junk" by Erika Meitner

Three new poetry books to savor during National Poetry Month

The age of texting and tweeting has brought out the curmudgeon in me, in part because I sometimes feel as if I’m immersed in degraded written English. National Poetry Month, celebrated in April, is a sort of antidote to all this — a time to savor the expressive power of the written word.

On April 21, UC Berkeley’s Center for Jewish Studies will present a program at the Magnes titled “At Home in America? Three Poets on Belonging and Diaspora in an Unsettled Moment.” My favor to myself for poetry month was to read these poets’ new books, which was a rewarding endeavor.

the cover of "My Little Book of Exiles" by Dan AlterAs the title conveys, the diasporic condition looms large in Berkeley author Dan Alter’s terrific “My Little Book of Exiles.” It’s a pronouncedly personal collection that is particularly attuned to feelings of connection and displacement across both place and time.

Alter mines experiences from throughout his life, and the longevity of this arc strengthens the book. Scenes from a distant past — an amorous encounter at a camp in Michigan, 20-something travels on three continents — achieve deeper resonance when brought into conversation with a subsequent life (as husband, father and homeowner) that is settled but sometimes unsettled.

There is even a sort-of focused mini-memoir, via a cycle of “Labor Songs” placed throughout the book that emerge from the author’s marvelously varied work stints, which range from a kibbutz banana plantation to an Alaska fish hatchery.

However, Alter also moves outside the confines of his own experience and grapples with the larger realm of Jewish history. He writes about his grandfather’s departure from Eastern Europe, about early Labor Zionist leader A.D. Gordon, and about Soviet Yiddish actor and director Benjamin Zuskin, who was murdered in one of Stalin’s purges. And one of the differences between encountering these poems as stand-alones in literary journals and reading them together in this collection is the reader’s emergent understanding that each of these figures has made radically different choices about where and how to find home.

the cover of "American Parables" by Daniel KhalastchiWhile Alter’s focus often leans toward Eastern Europe and Israel, Daniel Khalastchi offers a perspective informed partially by his identity as the descendant of Iraqi Jews. In “American Parables,” the writing teacher at the University of Iowa conveys in carefully crafted language and wry humor the fraught and alienating political atmosphere of the United States, as well as the moments and relationships that deliver hope and meaning against that backdrop.

Khalastchi’s eye turns on numerous occasions to his father, who escaped Iraq under painful circumstances in 1969, and who experienced a renewed bout of suffering in later years following serious illness.

In the poem “First Generation: Our Escape,” he addresses his father: “without your language, we / never ran from what you / run from and keep wanting / to this day.”

The heaviness of the present moment in this country is reflected in five scattered poems titled “TRIGGER WARNING.” Each begins with the words, “When the school shooter arrives / on campus,” followed by a different scenario. In one of them, the speaker’s visible Middle Eastern markers make him vulnerable, as “the police raise my olive / arms with lights and loud fire / of exhaust.”

One feels the elusive nature of home for both immigrants and their U.S.-born children (Khalastchi is a native Iowan) in a nation whose welcome is often ambivalent. The poem concludes: “I am the wrong man. Have / always been. Where else should they go / looking when my cooking smells so far?”

cover of "Useful Junk" by Erika MeitnerAnother college professor, Erika Meitner, who teaches English at Virginia Tech, provides the third entry in this poetry trifecta. “Useful Junk,” a follow-up to Meitner’s National Jewish Book Award–winning “Holy Moly Carry Me,” presents a personal universe enlivened by sexual desire and sensual memory. Covid is not mentioned, but while reading, I could not help feeling a sense of the increased importance of that physicality amidst the isolating and distancing of the past two years.

The theme of dislocation, felt acutely by a New York Jew now living in Appalachia, appears in poems such as “Missing Parts” — “I do not know where I want to rest when I’m gone since / I don’t feel at home anywhere except some subway platforms / and when I’m in motion passing through corridors or terminals.”

There is less emphasis on Jewishness here than in some of Meitner’s previous works, but her identity as the descendant of Holocaust survivors emerges powerfully in “My List of True Facts.” This spilling of thoughts without punctuation begins, “I am forty-three and I just drove to CVS at 9:30 p.m. on a Sunday / to buy a store-brand pregnancy test two sticks in a box.” The speaker soon wonders “with two sons / already what would I do with a baby now even though / I spent four long years trying to have another I am done.”

This introspection yields a recollection of learning about her grandmother’s younger brother murdered in Auschwitz with his mother. The boy, her grandmother informed her, had been a “change-of-life baby” — referring to a child born to a mother past the age of 40. The scene has taken on new meaning in light of this memory, crystallized in her noting that “there’s an unspoken mandate to procreate / when all your people your family were actually slaughtered.”

Sometimes a drugstore parking lot is more than a drugstore parking lot, and this is why I read poetry.

“My Little Book of Exiles” by Dan Alter (Eyewear Publishers, 108 pages)

“American Parables” by Daniel Khalastchi (University of Wisconsin Press, 120 pages)

“Useful Junk” by Erika Meitner (BOA Editions, 104 pages)

Alter, Khalastchi and Meitner will read their poetry in “At Home in America? Three Poets on Belonging and Diaspora in an Unsettled Moment,” a panel moderated by Naomi Seidman. 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday, April 21 at the Magnes, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. 5:30-7 p.m. Free, registration required.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.